Bonnie Dobson, Monkey Chews, Chalk Farm, London, 10 March 2008

14. 3. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Live reviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] In 1969 the Toronto-born Canadian folksinger and guitarist Bonnie Dobson arrived in England and never really left. She settled in London, raised a family and eventually largely dropped out of making music. Part of the first wave of Canadian folksingers that made their names down south, she had established her name in the United States and once in England chose to disappear off the radar after 1989. More or less. Because every so often – well once in 2007 and 2008 – she has put her head above the parapet. When she sings you go, even if it is a dimly lit, out of the way place above a pub in Chalk Farm.

Time and geography have draped a veil over much of what she did in the early 1960s. It was extremely hard to track down her early recordings outside in Europe in those heady Cold War days of the early to mid 1960s. Her Prestige-era albums largely remained a secret outside North America. Meaning, as a generalisation, only people of a certain generation or disposable income got to hear them in Europe. Though she slipped deliberately into a form of anonymity, her songs did not, most notably in the case of her 1962 song Take Me For A Walk, better known as Morning Dew. As Take Me For A Walk it appeared on The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 (Smithsonian Folkways, 2000). As Morning Dew it was much covered. And contested, since Tim Rose took advantage of her financial innocence by claim-jumping part of her royalties. She lived to rue Mr Rose.

Bonnie Dobson established herself in Britain, recording a new phase of her life in song. She got a steady stream of radio work, singing folksongs in English and French, putting her own stamp on Ian Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot material. And she kept writing songs, ones that reflected her newfound land and identity. Frequently sassy, regularly overt panegyrics to gender equality and affirmations of life, the best of Dobson’s songs have stood up extremely well. Gradually she slipped out of the limelight, though she never quite disappeared, even if after 1989 that near as damn it applied.

Bonnie Dobson re-emerged in June 2007 as one of the Lost Ladies of Folk at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. The concert presented her as the last of six acts, the de facto headliner. Her voice had deepened, was less agile than on the old albums but that voice, her presence and her sheer professionalism stole the show. But a return to the fray was not on the cards. Which was why it was surprising to learn that she was going to dust down the Martin and sing in public at an acoustic music club off Haverstock Hill in north London. At the other end of Haverstock Hill, trivia hounds, to where in the dreadful winter of 1962 Dylan asked nicely if he could have a go with Martin Carthy’s samurai sword to chop up a dead piano for firewood.

The impetus for Bonnie Dobson’s public appearance was to raise funds for a humanitarian organisation founded in 1999 called Hope and Aid Direct. (It provides aid for poor and displaced people in the Balkans.) She played to a packed house in the upstairs room at Monkey Chews. The sightlines were not good but from where I stood it felt as if it would have been hard to shoehorn many more people into the room. Not bad for an unadvertised gig that wasn’t mentioned anywhere in print or internet to my knowledge. It was the low-key gig she wanted.

She opened with wonderful authority with one of her calling-cards of old. Many will be more familiar with Someday Soon from Judy Collins’ version than Bonnie Dobson’s but Ian Tyson’s song is something that both can equally claim as theirs. (Dobson’s version is available on Bonnie Dobson, originally released in 1972 and reissued on CD in 2006.) She proceeded to run through a set that embraced French-Canadian terroir in folksong, local geography (her squadron leader song referred to waving the Union Jack on nearby Primrose Hill, nowadays a sleb-haven but long up-market), the embitterment of love gone bad and, naturally, her personal account of the Apocalypse called Morning Dew.

In the club atmosphere she could talk more easily than at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. She led into one song saying “I was raised by Pete Seeger, I can’t help this.”, raised the spectre of bygone comparison with Joan Baez but of the “tits and arse” variety (“You never wanted me.” she started singing) and evoked how a song haunted by nuclear apocalypse can adapt to transferable meaning and pertinence, thanks to climate change and other manmade visions of the Apocalypse. As Ratdog’s Bob Weir (once of the Grateful Dead) told me in 2007, “It was another of those tunes where you could almost make your meaning or just sit there and dream while you were listening to it.” That was certainly the case at Monkey Chews. She projected wonderfully well for somebody no longer used to singing in any place other than her home.

It is impossible to predict what may come next. Bonnie Dobson always had a splendid ear for a superior song. She took to Ewan MacColl’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face early, becoming the first person to interpret it on record, unless I am much mistaken, in North America. It was, she told me in 2007, “a very explicit song for its time” and even if time has chipped away at its explicitness, its poeticism remains intact. Dobson’s treatment of the song Peter Amberley furnished the Haverstock Hill Samurai Warrior with the melody for I Pity The Poor Immigrant on John Wesley Hardin. (Listen to her 1962 Philadelphia Folk Festival performance on The Prestige/Folklore Years, Volume Four (1995) for proof positive, though Dylan apparently coughed to it at some point.) Why this history and mention of songs not sung? Well, Bonnie Dobson has a superb track record and can still sing the heart out of a song. Cross your fingers and click your little heels and hope that, to misquote Ian Tyson, someday when she sings in public again.

Have you enjoyed the article? Digg

Directory of Articles

Most recent Articles